Monday, January 16, 2017

My ACA (Obamacare) Testimonial 2017

Today is MLK Day and in his memory I sang Civil Rights songs with my nursing home group. "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Overcome," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Down by the Riverside." I love these songs and they mean so much more to me in the face of what we are facing now in America.

I spent this morning sending my ACA testimonial of how Obamacare (ACA) has benefitted me.
In honor of MLK day and speaking out for what is right, I share an excerpt of my letter  below. Thank you for reading and wishing us all a time when we will be free from fear and injustice.

To Whom it May Concern:

My name is Renée Blue O’Connell and I am writing to ask that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be protected for the American people. What follows is my story and how the ACA has helped me.

Like many Americans, I have a disability. My disability is profound deafness.  A musician since my early teens, my deafness was an obstacle that kept me from pursuing my dream to become a professional musician.  In 2009, all of that changed after undergoing cochlear implant surgery. After a year of successful aural rehabilitation, I was emboldened to leave the safe confines of my administrative assistant job where I worked 14 years to pursue music full time.

I became a Certified Music Practitioner, which trained me to play therapeutic music at the bedside for the ill and dying.  Employed as a Musician-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Health System, I have provided music for many people in their 11th hour.  I witnessed a homeless man revive from a 4 month coma who was found nearly beaten to death one summer night. I played my guitar for a woman as she was taken off life support while she took her last breaths. I comforted a young girl, a burn victim, whose face was scared beyond recognition. Though I walked into their room a stranger, with music, all barriers were left behind.

In this work I have found my life’s calling. Even so, this life path came with much sacrifice. Before the ACA, I was unable to get health insurance because of my pre-existing condition of profound deafness. This meant I was unable to get necessary routine audiology services. As well as other routine check ups.

Cochlear implants are very expensive devices requiring upkeep and maintenance. As technology continues to change and improve, implant companies continue to upgrade sound processors. A cochlear implant recipient has no choice out of medical necessity but to obtain upgraded processors as old ones become obsolete. My recent upgrade cost just under $11,000.  Even with ACA health care, I am left with a hefty payment that I estimate to take 3 years for me to pay off with my current wages.

I am very grateful to the ACA because I have been able to contribute to my community and for the greater good doing such meaningful work. Yet it is very discouraging to be living in times where my health care is now being threatened.  I face the real possibility of returning to a life where I am discriminated against because I am profoundly deaf. 

I appeal to those of you who can vote to save ACA. Thank you very much for your hard work. 

Respectfully yours,

Renée Blue O’Connell, CMP
Certified Music Practitioner

#ACAtestimony, #cochlearimplantaca, #obamacaretestimonial, #acarights, #acaspeaker

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year's Eve Labyrinth Walk Improvisational Music

Given that the year of 2016 was ridden with loss and many challenges, my NYE gig playing guitar for the Labyrinth walk at the Unitarian church was a fitting way to end it. As you can see from the picture above, walking this maze is a good metaphor for life. At times we have to stop amidst our steps going forward in order to move over and give room for someone else to pass by. At times we have to slow down more so as not to get dizzy when looking down at the circular maze. We have to walk slow enough to see the big picture and gain perspective. Yet if we walk too slowly, we lose our balance.

My job was to accompany these walkers on NYE who came to end a year of life's experiences. Had they also lost someone close to them? Had they had changes come to them without warning? What are they letting go of and what do they wish to bring into the New Year?

I played my guitar without any script or sheet music. I flowed into one continuous stream of musical ideas, each one bringing a nuance and color and ambiance to help them move through their memories and dreams and hopes.

This year will be my 42nd year playing the guitar and I do have to say that nothing else fills me with such a feeling of joy and expansion and beauty.

What have you let go of this year and what dreams do you intend to plant?

Wishing you all the best in 2017!! Thank you for all of your support!

as always, my website is here:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas moments

This holiday season was one that brought challenge as well as joy.  Something I have learned about the darkening days surrounding the Winter solstice is that all religions talk about finding the light in the darkest days. That means that this time of year is about struggle as well as joy.

In my work I saw once again how the power of music can reach a soul and uplift one's heart in ways that no other thing can do.

On Christmas Eve, I played for some ICU patients at the hospital. One woman in particular stands out to me. I saw that she had no cards in her room nor any evidence of having had any visitors. She appeared to be in a lot of physical pain. I went to her and asked if she'd like for me to play her some Christmas music and she nodded yes. As I played through my favorites, "The First Noel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,""Silent Night," tears streamed down the woman's face.  Then she said at one point, "You are such a gift! Thank you so much for coming to play for me." Her face brightened as we talked a bit and she was smiling when I left her. Though I walked in her room a stranger, with music we connected.

While playing on the ICU floor, I kept getting more requests to go and play for more families and patients. At one point, even the housekeeper stopped working and came to sing, "Joy to the World" with me.

As I had been having some challenges of my own (a recent knee injury had me a bit down), these moments really uplifted me too. It was wonderful to see the staff in holiday spirits and spirits of the patients lifted up.

Now as I prepare for the New Year ahead, I'd like to thank everyone who reads my blog and who supports my work and me in many ways.

Happy New Year to you! I wish you all the best life has to offer in the coming year and evermore!

The picture above is on the doorway of an assisted living center where I played. I love this message!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On failing well

Recent political events have really put a serious and gloomy feeling in the air. Many are afraid of losing their health care and benefits and that's not even half of what is going on. Rather than continue to focus on the negatives, I wanted to share with you a story of my favorite failure story.

A few years ago, I took an online jazz improvisation course. I was in way over my head as the course covered material that was new for me and a real stretch. I was excited by the challenge though and did my best with each homework assignment.

However, when I began to get zeros as my grade, (by other students in the class) I was at first very offended. I went on the forum for the class and wrote them a note, "To all of you who gave me a zero..." and I told them how hard I tried. But you know, we are not graded by the effort we make. We aren't graded for getting out of our comfort zone and showing the world our vulnerability. We are only graded by the final results and outcome of our efforts.

Each week, I had to post my recording and analysis of jazz tune. I had never tried to play a solo before on the guitar with a recording and all of the scales and chords and rhythms were pretty challenging even for the advanced player. I was failing the course but I did not know it at the time. Zero after zero, I still believed in what I did. It was hard to read the critical comments on my solos.

Then one day I got silly. We were to record a solo for this interesting Carla Bley song, "Olhos De Gato." I tried so hard to get a good recording but after about 49 takes, I decided to just wing it. I turned on the recording, whooped and hollered and laughed through the whole take. It was the best thing I had done in the class! It was definitely not a very good solo (especially after I lost focus halfway through) but it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I love it that I got a zero for this. It makes me see that we don't have to do things for the approval of others. We can do it because we enjoy it. If trying something new means I fail to impress or to get a good grade,  it is worth it for the laughs it will always give me!

"Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it. " - Oprah

Here it is for you to laugh as well:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Day and making a difference

Yesterday was election day here in United States. I woke up in a good mood and after breakfast, I drove to cast my vote. Later, I arrived at the school where I teach music and while I waited for my students to arrive, I watched the voters come and go. After waiting for a long time and still no students, it occurred to me there must be some mistake. I went to check at the desk and sure enough, no classes today due to election day.

On my way home with my guitar in the back seat, I got an idea to spontaneously drop in a nursing home I have not been to for a long time. When I arrived, I was greeted by an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair that had plastic containers of cat food on the seat. She was coming from the back porch area when I went to say hello. After seeing the cat food, I asked, "Are there cats living here?"  She turned and pointed to the porch and said, "Yes we have 4 that live here and I just got done feeding them."    I told her I would like to meet them and we walked to the porch as she told me their names were: "Spikey, Sparky, Spunky and Starry. " I always enjoy meeting a fellow animal lover.

Once we were done visiting, I went inside to see who was around and who might want to sing a few songs. I met up with two elderly African American women sitting in the living room. At first, they eyed me suspiciously and asked, "Where are you from?? What is your name? " I told them my name and that I came by to see if anyone wanted to sing. One of them smiled and said, "Sing something. " So I started singing favorite Spiritual of mine:

"Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside
down by the riverside, Gonna lay down my burden.... "

Immediately the women's faces brightened and they sang along. Next we sang:

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

We kept going for a long while. I was amazed with how fast I went from being a suspicious stranger to a friend in music. One of them asked, "So, how often are you gonna start coming here? "  When it was time to go, they thanked me for coming and told me to come back again soon. I left feeling happy and that I made a small difference.

This morning I woke up to the news of the election results. Many people are very upset with our new president. I too wanted another outcome and yet my experience yesterday at the nursing home fills me with hope. I can only do what i am given to do and that is music.  Though many are discouraged now, I know that music unites and heals and brings people together.
I will keep on keeping on singing my songs and doing the best I know. Please do  not lose heart. We will get through this!

God Bless America.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Songwriting, Cochlear implant testing and International classes, oh my!

Last week was very busy and interesting.  I love the diversity of my work. On Tuesday, I spent the day at JMU as a cochlear implant research participant. The day involved working on one test which I had to listen carefully to a series of two conflicting beeping lines of sounds --one in low frequency and the other in high frequency. The task was to determine whether there was a delay at the end of the line or not. This one task I did for 4.5 hours! I was to focus on the low sound while the high frequency sounds were there to try to distract me. At times I felt really able to hear the delay in the line and others I could not tell at all. Doing such focused tests can be hard but it is also fun for me.

On Thursday, I gave my second presentation to UVA's international students in my series, "The American Experience Through Music." This class I taught them some Civil Rights songs and how some of the old African Spirituals were brought back into popularity during that time. Songs like, "Oh Freedom," "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child." We especially enjoyed singing together, "Calypso Freedom," which is an improvisational call and response chant based on the Jamaican song, "Banana Boat Song" by Harry Belafonte (who was a big civil rights activist)  The picture above is of me at Minor Hall at UVA with my ESL students.

Friday I co-led a songwriting workshop for my VSA (very special arts) group. We gave the class a list of subjects to vote on to write about: Animals, Friends, Birthdays, Holidays. They voted we write about all of these :) So, we brainstormed to vote upon two animals who become friends and they were a horse and a turkey. We then gave the students options for the kind of song to write: Blues, Bluegrass, Country, etc. They decided they wanted to have the song be both a Blues and a Bluegrass song. Hm.  I was not sure how we were going to pull of of this together but we did it! And the resulting song was very funny! It began as a Blues song where both the Horse and Turkey had the blues because they were all alone. Somehow, they meet and become friends and that's when the song turns into Bluegrass. The students were divided up as either a Horse or a Turkey and they made sounds of the animals when it came to expressing their voices.

It was all a lot of fun and now I am ready for a new week. I wonder what will happen next ??

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Experience Through Music

Back in the late 90s I worked as a temp at the University of Virginia International Center .   Something I enjoyed most while working there was watching them learn about American culture in their English language groups. My favorite was their book group where they would read American novels and discuss them. I was challenged by the teacher then to summarize, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in one sentence. It cannot be done!

The book group gave me the idea that a similar study group could be formed to learn about American music.  So, my new series was born. In our first lesson we discussed, "This Land is Your Land," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Wayfaring Stranger." They are great examples of a folk song, African-American spiritual and a Gospel song respectively.

I passed out the lyrics and sang for them and each song brought up questions and comments. What does it mean "No Trespassing?" in "This Land is Your Land"?  One student answered, "not allowed?"  Yes and that was the main point of the song because the lyrics say next:

"On the other side, it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me."

In other words, this land is made for everyone. No matter your social class, ethnic background, skin color, etc. "This land was made for you and me."

Next I asked, "How does the song, "Wayfaring Stranger," make you feel"? One student answered, "It makes me feel like how I feel right now, far away from home." Yes. It's a song written back in the 1700s about the plight of the pilgrims and the hope of going to a better place in the afterlife.

Then I showed them some videos of Bluegrass music  Bill Monroe and Alison Kraus.  But the real treat was of this performance of the popular Old Time band  Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Our next class we'll focus on Blues and Jazz. Looking forward to that!!